VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 11: Escape from Hell
Chapter written 1999 & last revised 2013
NOTES By 1958 I was suffering a number of increasingly nasty and daring attacks by large numbers of boys, culminating in an assault that consisted of a long line of boys suddenly running past me in the quad, each hitting me over the head with a heavy book.  I staggered away dazed and in fact went home, a heinous crime.  My father stormed up to the school and demanded to see the Head.  The next day I was summoned before my housemaster who asked me if everything was alright.  I was in fact very embarassed by my father's action and assured Covington that there was no problem whatsoever and that my father was making a fuss over nothing.  No doubt I also feared retribution from the boys in the unlikely event of any action being taken against them.  But I then felt that I had betrayed my father.
The PbSO4 was illegally supplied by my usual rogue pharmacist - see Chapter 9. I now hated school and everything connected with it so deeply that I couldn't bring myself to make any effort whatsoever.  I stopped making the slightest attempt to do homework and lines and no longer turned up at all for sport and gym.  While at school I spent as much time as I could hiding in the cloakrooms and lavatories, often in the company of Butcher, as described in an earlier chapter.  At one stage, when my Penguins were being stolen from my desk every day, I injected them with lead sulphate.  I was under the impression that this substance was very poisonous, but when they were stolen as usual, nothing happened.  That's always puzzled me.  Didn't you, the thief, at least get the bellyache?
I sat the mock O-levels long after the other boys of my age had sat the real thing. I scored one per cent in the maths - for spelling my name correctly at the top of the paper!  The maths master congratulated me on this, much to everyone's great amusement.  I don't think I scored more that ten per cent in anything, so I was not even entered for the real exams.  Apparently there was no precedent for this: all boys at this school took O-levels and the vast majority went on to take A-levels, so they really didn't know what to do with me.
The crunch came after the Christmas holidays of 1958/9.  I had been ordered to do detention all day on most days of the holidays - in other words to forfeit about two of the three weeks of holiday.  Apparently, this was also unprecedented.  It was a desperate last measure on their part.  (As mentioned previously, they tried flogging me once but mysteriously never repeated it, though it was often repeated with much lesser criminals).
Needless to say, I didn't turn up for a single day of these detentions, so after the holiday I simply didn't dare to go back.  I would set out apparently for school in the morning, walk about all day and take care to be back at the right time in the evening.  I made sure of being the one to pick up the mail from the doormat each morning, and intercepted the letters from the school to my parents.
This few weeks of wandering about all day was quite an education.  For a start, I came to know every nook and cranny of High Barnet, East Barnet and New Barnet as well as the surrounding fields and woods.  Of course, I already knew much of this pretty well, but this crash course filled the gaps in my knowledge.  I spent a lot of the time in public parks as well as in Hadley Wood and other secluded bits of countryside.  It was presumably cold, wet and muddy at that time of year - I don't remember that, only the joy of the solitude and the opportunity of formulating theories about the world.  I also discovered that there were a surprising number of middle-aged men out there hoping to pick up teenage boys.  They weren't very persistent, just repulsive and also irritating when you wanted to be left alone to sort out your thoughts.
I couldn't avoid the main roads all of the time and so the motor car's domination of the environment, even in 1959, was brought home to me.  I became sick of the sight, sound and especially the fumes of cars, so this subject became incorporated into my musings.  I came to the conclusion that the private car was doomed.  Within a few years people would notice the pollution and see sense.  Public transport, particularly a revived tram system, would be developed to the point where the car was no longer necessary and would be outlawed.  There was no question of my ever owning a car and indeed, I never did - until I was over 60.  These sentiments hardly seem revolutionary now, but expressing them then, when car ownership was still an unfulfilled dream for millions of people, marked you out as impossibly weird.  A car was what every decent human being was supposed to aspire to.  What fumes?  What noise?  What accidents?  Yet I would have dismissed with utter contempt any prediction that the private car would still reign by the Third Millennium, with a tenfold increase in numbers!
While on the subject of pollution, I have to admit that I was against the moves to ban the burning of coal in domestic fireplaces.  It was claimed that this would put a stop to smog (that's smog in the old sense of yellow sulphur-laden fog so dense that you literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face at times).  I loved the old London 'pea-soupers'.  You could be totally isolated and hidden in them and they brought all traffic to a standstill.  You had to navigate by feeling your way along walls and railings.  It was a different planet inside a good smog.  Unlike car fumes they didn't affect my chest, nose or throat, and I refused to accept that they harmed anyone.  Of course, the Clean Air Act, when it was finally passed, banished the genuine smog with immediate effect.  It also got rid of our coal fires, for which I had a great affection.  Whether or not fewer people died of bronchitis, I've no idea.
My mother smoked heavily until she was in her eighties. She got away with it. Smoking was different.  Doctors would often be smoking in their surgeries when you visited them.  In fact my mother's doctor advised her to start smoking 'for the nerves' when she was pregnant with me and she duly did so.  So both my parents smoked (my grandmother retained the Victorian attitude that it was disgusting for a woman to smoke).  Despite the approval of smoking by most doctors I was uneasy about it and suspected that it could cause various diseases.  This was another idea dismissed as the blithering of a crackpot.
These and many other ideas went round in my head during those few weeks of wandering, all in connection with a need I now felt to work out what the utopia that was inevitably on the way would be like in the details of everyday life. For a while, smashing the system seemed unnecessary because things like schools, cars, religion, money and separate nations were so ridiculous that they would be reformed or abolished almost of their own accord once people had been made more aware of things.  I began to plan the future of society in the school excercise books I carried around in my satchel.
I don't know how long I thought I could get away with this truancy - probably I didn't allow myself to think about it at all.  Anyway, I hadn't reckoned on second delivery.  Eventually a letter from the school came while I was out.  My father went straight up to the school and was astonished to hear that I hadn't put in an appearance for about six weeks and that several previous letters had been sent.  The Headmaster said "I'm prepared to give him another chance, but he will have to take the consequence of his actions, which will be a flogging in front of the whole school.  He will not be expelled."
In this photo of him he is almost smiling - obviously caught off guard ! I haven't yet described the Headmaster, Ernest Jenkins.  This is because he was so little in evidence throughout my time at QE.  He was a most ferocious-looking, seemingly (to us then) ancient man with a large bald head, piercing eyes under bushy black eyebrows and a knack of working certain muscles in his face to express apparent contempt or hate.  He was generally thought of as a fire-breathing dragon who emerged from his lair with its ominous dark oak door only once a day in order to preside over Assembly.  Being sent to the head was a most dreaded thing - even I never experienced that.  It could only mean an especially severe flogging or expulsion (or so we were led to believe).
When I returned home, I went straight to my room as usual to play records.  My father came into the room and told me that the game was up and reported his conversation with the Head.  I tried insisting that I had been attending regularly but that some glitch in their system must have caused an error in their records.  When it was obvious that my father wasn't going to believe that, I switched to claiming that I'd honestly thought I was going to school, but must have suffered some mental aberration, rather like sleep-walking.  To my surprise, I could see that my father was actually wondering if this might indeed have been the case.  He went back downstairs to talk to my mother.  I decided to brazen it out.  I followed him downstairs, rushed into the room and pointing at my father accusingly, I announced to my mother, "'ere, 'e says I've gone potty!"
"No, that's not what I said at all", replied my father.  "All I'm saying is, you spend too much time alone up in that room listening to that music."
When my mother had eventually understood what was going on she no doubt launched into the very first of scores of diatribes over the subsequent decades centring on "all the sacrifices" etc.  I can't remember.  What I do know is that I told my father that under no circumstances would I go back to the school, so he wrote to the Head informing him of this.  The Head replied that under the terms of the contract my father had signed when I started at QE, he had a legal obligation to send me there until I was 17 (the normal school leaving age was then 15).  However, in my case, he was prepared to make an exception.  I was free!  To this day I have nightmares that I'm still attending the school, in my 60s, and have still not managed to take my O-levels.  I experience the same sense of relief every time I wake up and find it was only a dream.
You may find photos relevant to this chapter in the INDEX OF PHOTOS.
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